Tattoos in Japan: Taboo?

So you want to travel to Japan but – uh-oh – you’ve read in the forums that tattoos are a no-go. Thanks to that ill-advised tribal you got when you were seventeen you’re going to be banned from swimming pools, hot springs and waterparks and kicked out of shops, hotels and restaurants. But you’ve already bought your plane ticket! What are you going to do?!

"I knew this was a bad idea!" (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

“Damn! I knew this was a bad idea.” (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

Well, don’t panic just yet.

Tattoos are indeed something of a taboo in Japan. The reason is simple: for many years, tattoos = yakuza, and yakuza = criminal.

traditional Japanese tattoo

A traditional Japanes tattoo by Horiyoshi III (photo: pinterest.com)

Some history

To give a bit of background on the matter, Chinese records dating back thousands of years indicate that tattooing might have been a part of Japanese culture since the Jomon Period (12,000-300 BC).

Later in history, however, tattooing seems to have gained a certain level of stigma – probably beginning when the Japanese began tattooing criminals to mark them out as offenders. However it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when Japan finally ended its long period of isolation, that they were banned altogether.

As Kotaku reports, this is because the Japanese government was worried that the practise of tattooing might be seen as barbaric by the outside world, exposing the Japanese to ridicule at a time when they wanted very much to be taken seriously. Though this ban was lifted after World War II, it was by then too late for the stigma to be reversed.

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

The yakuza, often called the “Japanese mafia”, have their roots in the Edo Period (1603-1868) and traditionally sport full-body tattoos, called irezumi. The associative links between tattoos and crime thus remain very strong in Japan, and even though the popularity of tattoos has increased in recent years due to Western influence (especially amongst the Japanese youth), your ink is likely to draw a few disapproving stares!

 

Will my tattoos be a problem for me in Japan?

Not necessarily. Opinions are steadily changing, and the majority of Japanese people are now aware that tattoos are much more acceptable abroad than they are at home. You will even see young Japanese people with discreet tattoos out and about in Tokyo, Osaka or indeed any Japanese city. Nonetheless, hundreds of years of stigma are not easily forgotten (as recently as 2012, for example, the mayor of Osaka launched a controversial campaign to force employees of the city to declare their tattoos to their employer) – so to avoid causing offence we recommend covering up your tattoos if you can.

Places where your tattoos may well be an issue are in hot springs (onsen), on beaches, at theme parks, at water parks and in swimming pools. It is still the norm at these establishments to ban tattoos entirely, and where a ban exists you will see prominent signs informing you of it.

Signs forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool

(Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

If you have a very small tattoo, it will most likely go unnoticed in most onsen (I have a tiny tattoo on my back, and have never been asked to leave a hot spring in Japan). Still, if you can cover your ink with a plaster or a bandage, you should probably do so just to be on the safe side.

If you are heavily tattooed, however, or have a tattoo that’s too large to cover – it is pretty likely that you may be asked to leave by staff.

 

But that’s not fair! I was looking forward to my first onsen experience…

Yes, it does suck. Especially because these bans usually only affect foreigners and those who obviously have no connection with organised crime. (If a real yakuza member walked into an onsen or a swimming pool, would you want to be the one to ask them to leave?).

Nonetheless it is a fact of Japanese culture, and there’s not much you can do about it. If you are heavily tattooed and would like to have an onsen experience (and we do highly recommend it!), we suggest booking a stay at a Japanese inn with private rotenburo baths, or where the communal baths may be booked out for private use. Alternatively, when my (heavily tattooed) brother came to visit me in Japan, he found that visiting the ryokan’s onsen late at night when most visitors had gone to bed was a great solution.

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling very bold, there are also bathhouses throughout Japan that cater specifically to yakuza members – though we certainly won’t be recommending any of those!

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan's greatest living tattoo artists.

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan’s greatest living tattoo artists. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

STOP PRESS –

Highend Hoshino Resorts, who run a number of beautiful ryokan across Japan, have recognised the problem with Japanese perceptions of tattoos and the fact that many foreigners have tatoos. It was announcd the other day the Hoshino Resorts would allow guests to bather in the hot spring baths, so long as their tattoo could be covered by a 8 x 10 cm white sticker. Is this the start of a changing in attitudes?

 

Tokyo vs. Kyoto: Clash of the Titans

 

Just to set the record straight before I begin, if you’re umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether you should visit Tokyo or Kyoto on your trip to Japan, you can stop right away. The answer is simple: you should visit both.

But what if it doesn’t tie in with your holidays plans? What if you don’t have time to do both? In that is the case, this blog post is your whistle-stop tour of Japan’s two greatest cities and their multitude of attractions. I warn you, though, it won’t make the decision any easier!

History in a nutshell

Tokyo

Ever since Japan’s economic bubble of the 1980s, Tokyo has been a byword for high modernity and space-age technology. Think of Tokyo and you’ll probably imagine a Bladerunner-esque landscape of soaring skyscrapers, neon lights and overhead flyovers – and there are certain times (when soaring across Tokyo Bay on the monorail to Odaiba Island, or when standing in the midst of the clamour of Akihabara, for example) when Tokyo seems to live up to its futuristic reputation. But it wasn’t always like this.

Tokyo began life as a small fishing village called Edo (meaning “estuary”). Fortified by the Edo clan in the late 12th century, it boasted a castle by 1457, and was chosen to become the centre of the military government of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of Japan’s most powerful shogunate) in 1603. Over the course of the long and peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) to which it gave its name, the city of Edo became one of the largest and most populous cities in the world: Japan’s capital in all but name.

In 1867 the last Tokugawa shogun was overthrown, and in 1869 the young Emperor Meiji moved his imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo – renaming it Tokyo (meaning “eastern capital”).

In the 20th century, Tokyo suffered two major catastrophes: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed 140,000, and World War II, which saw the city’s population dwindle from 6.7 million to just 2.8 million. Both events wrought widespread destruction on the mainly wooden buildings of the city.

Following the war, Tokyo defied all expectations to make a spectacular recovery, culminating in the economic bubble of the 1980s, which brought the breakneck development and massive building projects that made Tokyo what it is today.

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Kyoto

Often posited as the yin to Tokyo’s yang, the city of Kyoto is considered by many to be the custodian of Japan’s traditional culture – with a beautiful temple, shrine or garden seemingly hidden behind every corner and sliding door. This reputation is the legacy of more than a millennium as Japan’s imperial capital, which, as you might expect, left the city with an incredible repository of cultural and historical treasures.

Kyoto (or Heian-kyo, as it was originally known) was established as imperial capital by Emperor Kammu in 794, inaugurating the Heian Period (794-1159) of Japanese history. The city was based on the grid-style capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China, and remained the political as well as the cultural heart of the country until power shifted to Kamakura in 1185.

Despite suffering destruction in various conflicts over the centuries, Kyoto was spared bombing during WWII and survives today in better condition and with more pre-war buildings than most Japanese cities.

Kyoto’s reputation as historical treasure-hoard leads many first-time visitors to expect a quaint, wood-panelled town with quiet, traditional streets – but don’t be fooled. Kyoto did not escape from modernisation unscathed, and today you will find a bustling, modern city that hides its cultural gems beneath a veneer of concrete, steel and glass.

Kyoto Station area

Kyoto Station area

See and do

Tokyo

Tokyo has pretty much everything, if I’m honest. The way the city grew over the years to absorb neighbouring towns means that there is no one “city centre”, but a number of different centres, each with its own character and attractions.

Shinjuku is the entertainment and business hub, packed with skyscrapers; Akihabara “electric town” is the home of flashing neon, Maid Cafes and otaku counterculture; Asakusa is the city’s traditional district, home to Senso-ji Temple and souvenir shops; while Harajuku is the mecca for Japan’s outrageously-attired youths and atmospheric Meiji Shrine. These are just a few of Tokyo’s many districts – there’s also cosmospolitan Roppongi, exciting Shibuya, seedy Kabukicho, futuristic Odaiba, upmarket Ginza… you could stay in Tokyo for years and feel as though you haven’t seen it all.

What are the highlights? Of course, that’s a very subjective question – and in a city that offers so much, you could choose almost anything. These are a handful of great sights and experiences to start with:

Tsukiji Fish Market – the largest seafood market in the world, Tsukiji welcomes tourists every morning for the tuna auctions and fascinating main market. Go now, as it’s due to move to a new location soon – and will stop accepting visitors!

Golden Gai – hidden in the middle of Shinjuku, Golden Gai is a totally unexpected slice of old Edo slap-bang in the skyscraper district. With just six narrow alleyways groaning with over 200 tiny clubs and eateries, bar-hopping here is an unmissable Tokyo experience in my book.

Hamarikyu Gardens – Sipping green tea at the teahouse in the serene centre of Hamarikyu Gardens, quite literally an oasis at the heart of the metropolis, is a definite must. Even Prince William thinks so!

Tokyo Skytree – Tokyo’s 634m Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, and the views from the top are incomparable. If you’re strapped for cash, however, you can take in your surroundings for free from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Senso-ji Temple – Located at the heart of Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional district, the bright red Senso-ji is the city’s oldest temple. Be sure to wander the surrounding market stalls and grab a bite to eat from a roadside stand!

Studio Ghibli Museum – For fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpieces, the Studio Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo suburbs is a must-visit.

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Kyoto

What’s to see in Kyoto? Temples, temples, temples. And maybe a garden or two….so much more!

A visit to Kyoto is a chance to see some of Japan’s finest historical architecture, and with over 2,000 temples and shrines to choose from – we’re sure the city won’t disappoint! If you get tired of temples, moreover, there is plenty more to keep you busy, from a rickshaw ride through the bamboo groves of Arashiyama to a morning spent sampling the delights of Nishiki food market. Here are just a few of Kyoto’s highlights:

Fushimi Inari Shrine – my own personal favourite, Fushimi Inari’s tunnels of red torii gates have been immortalised in countless travellers’ photographs and are even more impressive in the flesh.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple – Located on a hillside above the city, drinking from one of Kiyomizu’s three streams is said to improve your luck in either brains, love or money.

Kinkaku-ji Temple – This golden pavilion at the centre of a lake is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights. It’s even more beautiful in the snow, as I found out last winter.

Ryoan-ji Temple – Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden – Ryoan-ji is most definitely not more beautiful in the snow. As I found out last winter.

Nijo Castle – Quite unlike an ordinary Japanese samurai castle, Nijo is famous for its “nightingale floors”, which squeak to warn the inhabitant of intruders.

Gion – Gion is Kyoto’s traditional teahouse district, home to the city’s elusive geisha population. InsideJapan Tours can arrange for you to have a private audience with a trainee geisha – a truly rare and privileged experience!

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Day trips

It’s not just what’s in the city that counts – it’s also the side trips you can make as part of your stay. For me, Kyoto really takes the biscuit in terms of nearby attractions, but many of my colleagues would insist that Tokyo wins! Decide for yourself…

Tokyo

Nikko – Perhaps the best side-trip from Tokyo is Nikko, a national park that’s home to a shrine and temple complex built in honour of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Kamakura – A small city that once served as Japan’s de facto capital, Kamakura is famous for its lovely beaches and giant bronze Buddha.

Hakone – Japan’s most popular hot spring resort, located in the shadow of Mount Fuji. A great place to stay in a traditional ryokan inn.

Tokyo Disney – Boasting Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, if you’re after a Disney fix in Tokyo you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Kyoto

Mount Koya – Though you could just about do Koya in a day from Kyoto, an overnight stay is much better. This atmospheric mountaintop temple community is my favourite place in all Japan, and a great chance to stay the night at a temple lodging!

Nara – One of Japan’s ancient capitals, Nara boasts a wide open park, a resident population of friendly deer, the largest wooden building in the world and an amazing giant Buddha, too.

Osaka – Big, brash, bold Osaka is one of Japan’s most exciting cities, and is known for its colourful Nanba district and delicious street food. Universal Studios Japan is also located here.

Himeji – Just a short hop on the Shinkansen line is Himeji, home to Japan’s largest and most impressive original castle – recently reopened after a five-year facelift!

This is just the tip of the iceberg of things that can be done with a little time and inclination in Tokyo and Kyoto. Already I’ve rambled on longer than I should, and without even touching on food, nightlife, museums, transport, accommodation…

Brief as it is, I hope this short introduction will help you understand a little of the character of Tokyo and Kyoto, and why these are indispensable destinations on any Japan itinerary!

Making Sense Of The Tokyo Metro

Tkyo Subway

You see that spaghetti dinner up there? That’s the map for Tokyo’s subway system, Tokyo Metro. Although it may look daunting at first glance, with a little explanation (and a lot of pictures) you’ll be riding the underground like a true Tokyoite in no time!

First off, let’s learn a bit about the subway situation in the big city. There are two main subway operators in Tokyo: the Tokyo Metro and the government-owned Toei subway. Altogether, these two operators combine to make 290 stations on 13 separate lines. With over six million passengers per day, sometimes the carriages can get pretty packed.

And this is before the rush...

And this is before the rush…

Wait, TWO different operators, you say? Doesn’t that confuse things even more, you wonder? Has Tokyo gone mad, you exclaim?!
Well, you’re correct on all accounts. Both the Tokyo Metro and the Toei subway form completely separate networks, and the tickets procured from one will not work on the other. Fares can be different, and to transfer from one operator to the other necessitates purchasing transfer tickets, further complicating things. As mentioned earlier, daunting, right?

Will the ticket you just bought get you home?Possibly!

Will the ticket you just bought get you home? Possibly!

You may, at this point, just throw up your hands and resign yourself to spending a fortune on taxis for your holiday in Japan. However, we’re here to help! Perhaps realizing how intimidating the Tokyo subway system can be for foreign visitors, much effort has been made recently to help accommodate those looking to travel underground comfortably.

You can breathe a big sigh of relief and put away your change purse and calculator watches, as there is another, better way to pay your fares. There are a variety of contactless, RFID pay cards available for purchase at certain train stations. These cards can be charged up with cash and then just waved over the card reader at one of the many gates leading to the platforms. And the best part? These cards work between lines and operators, cutting out the need to buy individual tickets and saving time and money in the long run! Easy, right? And with names such as Pasmo, Suica, and Manaca, the cards are as fun to say as to use.

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Tokyo!

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Japan!

 

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you're in!

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you’re in!

What’s that? You can’t understand Japanese? No problem! Subway station signs are in English, as are most maps and other signage. There’s even an English option on the ticket machines. Once you’ve boarded the train, announcements are in both English and Japanese, ensuring a stress-free, smooth transition whether you’re getting off at the next stop or transferring onward.

And, if you don’t want to read anything, English or Japanese (hey, you’re on vacation, right?), each subway line is numberd, signposted, and color-coded, making catching your train that much simpler. For example, you want to catch the Tozai Line to Nakano? Just take the blue colored line with a “T” in the middle. You’ll be browsing manga and anime goods at Nakano Broadway in no time!

 

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Of course, for the tech savvy among us, Tokyo Metro provides a free tourist information app. Using this app, you can search areas by popular landmarks, chart the best course there, and enjoy restaurants and tourist information all in English. And with free wifi available at over 140 subway stations in Tokyo, it’s easier than ever to stay connected. However, be sure to factor in to your crazy night out that the Tokyo Metro does not run 24 hours! If you find yourself out past midnight, prepare to stay out a little while longer, as the trains don’t start again until around five.

I think you'll find something to do...

I think you’ll find something to do…

Phew. That was a lot to take in, I’m sure. But, now that you know the basics of the Tokyo Metro, you can ride with confidence on your next holiday to Japan….and of course, if you are travelling with IJT, you will have your Info Pack to help you along and make you travels easy!

 

15 fantastic onsen hot springs to visit in Japan

If you read my recent post on hot spring bathing etiquette a couple of weeks ago, it might well have got you wondering where in Japan to whip out your new-found skills and cultural know-how.

OnsenIf you were – you’ve come to the right place. The following is a list, compiled by dedicated Japan experts who have denuded and submerged themselves in every prefecture of this fine archipelago, represents our pick of 15 fabulous onsen hot spring baths in Japan. Don’t forget – there are many onsen just as marvellous as these that we have yet to discover, so this list is far from exhaustive! I’ve listed our favourites in no particular order.

N.B. Onsen purists beware – this list includes sento bathhouses as well as official onsen (if you want to know the difference, read my last post). Deal with it.

  • Nyuto Onsen

Located in the Akita Prefecture in Japan’s northern Tohoku Region, Nyuto Onsen is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring areas. The name means “nipple hot spring” (apparently it’s named after the shape of a nearby mountain), and the water here is a milky colour – almost blue in some lights.

Nyuto Onsen

Nyuto Onsen

 

  • Tsuboyu (Yunomine Onsen)

Tsuboyu is the only hot spring bath in Japan to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given this status, you’d be forgiven for imagining an idyllic, steaming pool surrounded by spectacular views, with water the consistency of milk and honey. In actual fact, what you get is a gloomy stone shack about the size of a commode, which overhangs a river and stinks to high heaven of sulphur. But it’s an experience, you have to give it that!

Tsuboyu

Tsuboyu

 

  • Kurama Onsen

Just 30 minutes by train from the heart of Kyoto, the beautiful little hot spring village of Kurama Onsen is the perfect option for those who don’t have time to trek right into Japan’s deepest countryside in search of a nice soak. For the best experience, head to the onsen after hiking from the neighbouring village, across the mountain pass.

Kurama Onsen

Kurama Onsen

 

  • I Love Yuu Bathhouse

Rustic, traditional onsen are lovely – but the I Love Yuu Bathhouse on Japan’s art-tastic Naoshima Island really is a breath of fresh air. The name is a multilingual play on words, as yuu is the Japanese word for “hot water”, and inside you’ll bathe in kitschy baths decorated with erotic art, pink palm trees, a giant elephant statue and much more. Don’t miss it!

I Love Yuu

I Love Yuu

 

  • Dogo Onsen

This venerable bathhouse in Matsuyama City is the oldest surviving bathhouse in Japan, and is said to have inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. The current building was opened in 1894, but the spa has a history stretching back over a millennium. Commoners such as ourselves can bathe here in the main baths, there is a special bath set aside for the sole use of the Japanese royal family!

Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen

 

  • Funaoka Bathhouse

In a similar vein to Dogo Onsen, the Funaoka is one of Kyoto’s most famous and best-loved bathhouses. Opened in 1923, the dressing rooms are decorated with wood carvings depicting the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (controversial), and the bathhouse boasts a great array of indoor baths, outdoor baths, cypress baths, herbal baths, and even a bath with an electric current running through it! Funaoka is technically a sento, not an onsen.

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

 

  • Osaka Spa World

Osaka Spaworld is essentially an onsen theme park, with several different floors offering restaurants, beauty treatments, shops, swimming pools – and, of course, baths. There is an Asian floor and a European floor, each with baths running the gamut from a Grecian bath with columns and fountains, to a milk-and-honey bath in a cave, to a bath with giant fish tanks in the walls, to a Finnish sauna complete with model wolves – and much, much more besides. Spa World is so amazingly epic, in fact, that Claire Brothers of InsideJapan Tours declares it her favourite place in the entire world. High praise indeed from a lady who has visited an owl café.

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

 

  • Kinosaki Onsen

Located in Hyogo Prefecture in the southwest of Japan, Kinosaki Onsen is a classic hot spring town sandwiched between mountains and sea. Hot springs were discovered here in the eighth century, and today visitors still come here to stay in the beautiful traditional inns and take the waters at the seven lovely bathhouses, connected by lantern-lit wooden bridges.

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

 

  • Jigokudani Monkey Park

A monkey park? But this is an article about hot spring baths?! Indeed it is, and no discussion of hot springs could possibly be complete without mentioning the onsen-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani. They. Are. Adorable. Unfortunately you can’t just jump into the monkey spring, but there are human springs aplenty in the nearby town of Yudanaka Onsen.

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

 

  • Hirayu Onsen

A new addition to our list of favourite onsen, Hirayu Onsen is one of five onsen towns in the Okuhida area of the northern Japan Alps. Of the five, Hirayu is the oldest and largest, and is said to have been discovered in the 1560s. We highly recommend heading to the onsen after a long day of skiing on the slopes nearby!

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

 

  • Kawayu Onsen

Located on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, deep in the countryside of the Kii Peninsula, Kawayu Onsen is a hot spring town not far from Yunomine Onsen (mentioned above). Our favourite hotel in the town, the Fujiya Ryokan, sits on the banks of the Ohto River and is famous for its giant senninburo bath, carved from the riverbank. The senninburo (meaning thousand-person-bath) is only there during the winter months, but in summer you can dig your own hot spring bath instead!

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

 

  • Takaragawa Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen is located in rural Gunma Prefecture, slap-bang in the middle of nowhere on the banks of a river surrounded by trees. This is a beautiful, peaceful onsen in a stunning location – in fact, you’d have to try pretty hard to do better than this!

 

  • Kusatsu Onsen

Though most foreigners will never have heard of it, Kusatsu is one of Japan’s favourite onsen towns. Also located in Gunma (home to Takaragawa Onsen), the town is built around the Yubatake (hot water field) – the single largest source of hot spring water in Japan, providing 5,000 litres per minute.

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

 

  • Lake Kussharo

One of our favourite hot spring spots on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Lake Kussharo, the largest of the three caldera lakes that make up Akan National Park. Here you can soak in one of the area’s lovely hot spring baths, or even dig your own from the steaming lakeshore.

Lake Kussharo

Lake Kussharo

 

  • Unzen Onsen

Our final hot spring favourite is Hakone, a famous hot spring resort in the shadow of Mount Fuji – just a stone’s throw from Tokyo. Here there are no end of excellent ryokan inns with their own lovely hot spring baths, and if you eat a black egg boiled in the bubbling owakudani it’s said that you’ll extend your life by seven years.

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

Tokyo Restaurant Review – Takazawa Bar

Takazawa VIP Room

If you’re a foodie there’s a good chance that you’ve already hear of Takazawa. The restaurant, named after it’s owner and chef, was ranked in the top 50 restaurant in Asia in both 2014 and 2015. Takazawa is loved by critics and patronized daily by Tokyo’s elite. In newspapers and magazines there has been more buzz about the fact that Takazawa is yet to receive it’s handful of Michelin stars than most restaurants garner when they get 3 Michelin stars. Perhaps the folks at Michelin couldn’t get a reservation at one of the coveted 10 seats?

Takazawa Bar

Takazawa’s sous chef and world class bar manager – if it’s not too busy you may be able to enjoy one of the best cocktails in Tokyo from the young man on the right.

So when Takazawa decided to open a small eating bar adjacent to the restaurant, it’s not surprising that it made a splash with the Tokyo dining scene. Finally, locals and foreigners alike were able to pop into a bar on relatively short notice, enjoy drinks from a world class sommelier and cocktail artist and eat food from the very kitchen that is rightly considered one of the best in the world.

On a recent visit to the newly opened restaurant I was shown around the VIP room and treated to a fantastic journey through the food and drink menu. As is often the case in Japan, rather than choosing for oneself an omakase style of ordering is the preferred style here; whereby you simply explain how much you’d like and give a sense of your budget and then sit back and enjoy! Sakurai-san (pictured) is a well-known bartender who worked at prestigious venues throughout the city before being picked up by Mr. Takazawa himself.

Champagne

We started off in style with Takazawa’s preferred and personally labeled Champagne, a crisp and ever so slightly pretentious way to wash down the oysters with lemon foam. These touches of molecular gastronomy keep the menu interesting and innovative but there’s also a farm to table concept which underlies everything and keeps the restaurant thoroughly rooted in Japan. Ask where an ingredient is from and you’ll invariably be given an answer that could be tracked down to a single farm let alone a particular region. For instance our second course, which consisted of mozzarella topped with sorbet (shown below) had come straight from Hokkaido that very day – though that was simply lucky timing as much as anything. Moving along, our bartender brought out a bottle of ‘Koshihikari’ beer from Niigata that was made of rice and proved to be the perfect thing to wash down the most beautiful course of the night, vegetable tempura with three kinds of salt delicately patterned along the side of the plate. We found the sakura salt to be our personal favorite and it certainly suited the spring season; the anticipation of cherry blossom is tangible throughout Japan right now.

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Moving along, we found our way to something that could never be served in Takazawa’s restaurant but made for a tasty bar snack. Venison finger sandwiches had been made out of the literal and nominal spare ribs from the restaurant. Though the picture above most assuredly doesn’t do it justice, the minced meat was so soft and delicate that chewing was only necessary for devouring the bread and cabbage; the juicy venison melted. When paired with a truly top quality sake (nihonshu) this course was a nice reminder that the bar is more than merely another outlet for the restaurant, it stands on it’s own with or without the name on the front door.

IMG_4736

Throughout the meal we were served on Kutani Pottery and enjoyed our drinks out of Edokiriko, a wonderful nod to Takazawa’s love of traditional Japan and it’s unparalleled artistry. For every top tier restaurant there is a potter, lacquerware maker, glass blower, carver and artist that is perfecting their craft to make vessels that increase one’s culinary experience beyond the credit they’re often given.

The bar manager at Takazawa Bar regularly competes in bar tending contests and he still considers it his main craft and skill despite the fact that he now spends more time choosing pairings then shaking mixers. If the bar is crowded there’s no chance of getting such a complicated drink but if you arrive early and the bar isn’t too crowded, be sure to ask Sakurai-san to mix you a cocktail – you won’t be disappointed. The slideshow below shows him whisking up (literally!) a matcha cocktail with Japanese liqueur for us. It went down far too easy.

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There’s no shortage of places to eat in Tokyo and there are plenty that are cheaper than Takazawa Bar but if you are looking for a special experience and culinary excellence without the stuffiness of most Michelin-starred restaurants this one should stay on your “must eat at” list!

IMG_4718

The tiny but welcoming Takazawa Bar.

Blue blossom a first

Why? – This is the question being asked about the beloved Cherry Blossom trees in Kanazawa.
Things have changed in Kanazawa recently. The city known for its gardens, old tea districts and samurai houses is a beautiful example of traditional Japan.  Perhaps it is the new blue-nosed Shinkansen service that opened in mid-March slashing journey time from Tokyo to Kanazawa from 4hrs to 2.5hrs. Tourist numbers to the old city on the Japan Sea Coast have increased considerably with the new train. Is this the reason that a single tree in the city has blossomed blue? – Who knows!?!

Mysterious blue cherry blossom a first.

Mysterious blue cherry blossom a first.

This is the famous cherry blossom of Japan. This traditional city, is not use to non-pink cherry blossom. It just doesn’t happen. Is it a one off occurance? We don’t know. Mysterious Japan….

Perhaps we should add it to our interactive cherry blossom guide –

Our cherry blossom guide

Our brand new cherry blossom guide!

 

Tsukiji Fish Market: How to do it right

Tsukiji Fish Market is one of my tip-top favourite Tokyo experiences, but what with increasingly unstable relations between the vendors (for whom this is their livelihood) and tourists (for whom it is a fascinating attraction), it is important to know how to “do” Tsukiji properly.

Located right in the middle of Tokyo, next-door to Hamarikyu Gardens and near the upmarket Ginza district of town, Tsukiji is the largest seafood market in the world, and makes a fantastic (and free) addition to any Tokyo itinerary.

And since it was announced that Tsukiji will soon be moving from its current location to a site in Toyosu (a 20-minute bus or train ride from its current spot), you really will have to get in there quick – before it changes for good!

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

What does the future hold?

As of yet, exact details about the new arrangement for Tsukiji Fish Market are elusive – and what information we’ve been able to glean so far has been vague at best.

The Toyosu Tsukiji Market (run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) is scheduled to open in November 2016, and will continue to function as a wholesale market for Tokyo’s restaurants. In addition to this, it seems that there will be an area dedicated to the general public (including tourists), where you will be able to see and buy fresh seafood and vegetables, and perhaps even take cooking lessons or attend special events. The tuna auctions will also be taking place here, but it is not yet clear whether the public will be allowed to watch them or not.

What is to become of the current Tsukiji site is even more unclear. Whilst most news sources on the suggest that the reason for the move is to free up prime real estate for profitable development, one of our sources in Tokyo indicated that there has been talk of plans for a new Tsukiji Market (run by the local ward) to be built where the “inner” market currently resides, while the existing shops in the “outer” market will remain as they are.

So, in short, it’s not certain what the future holds for Tsukiji.

The inner market

How do I visit the market now?

Until these mysterious changes come into effect, it is still possible to visit Tsukiji Market – and I would certainly urge you to do so if you get the chance. If you do decide to visit, you have two options: either get up before the crack of dawn to see the tuna auctions for which the market is famous; or mosey on down at about 9am to catch a bit of market action.

When you get there, you’ll find that the market has two sections: inner and outer. The outer market is much smaller, has plenty of great sushi restaurants, and lots of shops selling vegetables, spices, cooking implements and various other things.

The inner market, meanwhile, is the really interesting bit. This is where you’ll find all the wholesale seafood sellers – as well as some of the very best sushi restaurants in Japan, where people queue for literally hours for just a few minutes at the bar.

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Visiting just the inner market:

9am is still pretty early in the morning when you’re on holiday (if you ask me), so I will not be the one to judge if you just don’t care enough about dead fish to get up for the tuna auctions. Tsukiji is still most definitely worth a visit if you can only make it to the main market – in fact, at InsideJapan we think this is the best bit. You will get to see massive tuna being skilfully carved up, as well as plenty of other weird and wonderful produce – and you can feel secure in the knowledge that your presence is welcomed rather than resented.

Tsukiji Inner Market

Tsukiji Inner Market

At this time in the morning the trains will be running, so getting to the market is much easier than if you decide to see the auctions. All you need to do is catch the subway to Tsukiji Station (on the Hibiya subway line, 8 mins walk from inner market) or Tsukijishijo Station (on the Toei Oedo Line, 3 mins walk from inner market). Follow the crowds and you should end up at the market, where guards on the entrances can usually provide you with a free map.

Once inside, you are free to wander amongst the stalls freely – but look out for speedy buggies zipping past, as they will not get out of your way! The market is still very crowded at this time, so try your best not to get in the way of vendors trying to do their jobs – once again, this is a working market, not a tourist attraction. Remember not to smoke, touch anything, bring large bags or luggage, or wear inappropriate footwear (the ground is very uneven, wet and dirty). Young children are also not allowed.

Restaurant at the outer market

Restaurant in the outer market

Visiting the auctions:

If you really want the full Tsukiji experience and don’t mind getting up at silly o’clock to get it, you can visit the tuna auctions, which take place between 3.30am and 6am every day (except Sunday and some Wednesdays) and are completely free of charge.

We suggest that you think carefully before deciding to visit the tuna auctions. Though they are fascinating, relations between tourists and buyers/sellers at the auction have become quite fractious in recent years, and there is a sense that you presence here is grudgingly tolerated rather than openly welcomed.

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

If you do decide to visit the auctions, take care to do so in a respectful fashion. Follow the rules to the letter, and absolutely do not head over there after a night on the tiles! Since trains do not run this early in Tokyo, your options are either to stay somewhere within walking distance of the market, or order a taxi from your hotel.

Public access to the auction is limited to two tour groups, each of 60 people, and places are strictly first come, first served. The first group are allowed to watch the auction from 5.25am until 4.45am, while the second group is allowed to watch from 5.50am until 6.10am. To be in with a good chance of getting a place in one of the groups, most people recommend turning up at about 4am. This means that you should be prepared for a long, cold wait before you can actually get into the auction!

After all this effort, you are still not guaranteed entry into the market. It really depends as to how many people are going to turn up that day.

Filleting tuna

Filleting tuna

Make sure you wrap up warm (the waiting room is unheated), and bring something to amuse yourself while you wait. Once inside, you can take photos and films to your heart’s content, but remember not to use flash – or you will be unceremoniously removed from proceedings.

After the auction, we recommend heading to the outer market for a sushi breakfast (the best sushi breakfast you will ever have) and to explore the market stalls here before returning to the inner market to see the wholesale vendors in action. Tourists are not allowed into the inner market until 9am, when the morning’s hustle and bustle is beginning to wind down. Though you can technically enter before this if you intend on buying something, and you will read some sources suggesting that you use this as an excuse to get in, we highly recommend that you don’t do this, as you will be getting in the way and obstruct the normal operation of business.

Auctioneers in action

Auctioneers in action

The following video should give you a good insight into the tuna auctions at Tsukiji. If you’re interested in seeing more background on the Tokyo restaurant scene, I also highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which gives a fascinating insight into the life and craft of one of the city’s best sushi chefs.

If you would like any more advice or information about visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, please don’t hesitate to contact us in the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter or through our website.

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